In the U.S., a growing interest in natural and locally sourced foods has extended to pets. These trends have created opportunities for both pet specialty retailers and product manufacturers to promote treats and chews that are made with natural ingredients, including those sourced in the U.S.
"Current trends in natural treats and chews that we are experiencing include an increase in customers looking for U.S.-sourced treats, organic and limited-ingredient products," said Jeff Reibert, pet category buyer for CountryMax, which has stores in New York state. "The mentality is: If we wouldn’t feed it to ourselves, we wouldn’t feed it to our pets."
Denise Strong, owner of Pawz on Main, a retailer in Cottonwood, Ariz., has also seen growing customer interest in ingredient sourcing.
"In the last three years, I’ve noticed a steady increase in consumers wanting to know where the raw materials for food products are actually farmed, not just where the product is made," Strong said.
Lynette M. Cano-Aguirre, founder and president of Sancho & Lola’s Closet, a premium dog treat manufacturer in Lewisville, Texas, said the preference for USA-sourced-and-made treats and chews with single or limited ingredients is particularly prevelant among younger generations.
Millennials and their gen Z counterparts are especially concerned with natural ingredients and the "Made in the USA" label, Cano-Aguirre noted, and prefer brands that cater to them with transparent packaging.
In addition to transparent sourcing information, dog treats and chews manufacturers have tapped into the pet humanization trend by formulating foods perceived to be particularly nutritious.
"We see the continued trend of people applying their own health behaviors to their pets," said Derek J. Archambault, director of marketing at FoodScience Corp. in Williston, Vt.
Archambault added that consumers prefer wholesome and whole-food products and are seeking health benefits for their pets through nutrition.
To meet these consumer demands, FoodScience recently intorduced Pet Naturals Superfood Treats.
"They really hit on what consumers are looking for by providing good nutrition with the benefits of superfoods like kale, blueberries, apples, sweet potatoes, spinach and oatmeal, combined with flavors dogs love, and [they have] only seven calories per treat," Archambault said.
Chews Happiness, a Boulder, Colo.-based manufacturer, also offers a healthful option packed with superfoods. Its Barkaron—think of that sweet French confection, the macaron—is one of the company’s "Decadent Doggie Desserts," said Tavor White, founder and CEO, adding that not all all-natural ingredients are created equal.
"Let’s be honest," White said. "You can have an all-natural treat that’s not that healthy. The movement is towards not just natural, but the health aspects of it."
This led the company to consider the benefits of its Barkaron desserts.
"One of our flavors is a superfood blend with camel cheese, lots of berries, lots of pomegranates, all organic," White said. "That’s an example of adding health benefits but also being decadent for the dog. We have another [Barkaron] with Himalayan river trout, which is from the pristine glacial rivers of the Himalayas. The trout itself is the main ingredient."
With Sales Up, The Opportunity to Educate Rises
It’s too early to tell in what ways the recent economic shutdown will affect the pet product market, but some pre-pandemic sales trends could continue.
"Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, sales were way up," Strong said.
Strong offers bagged U.S.-made treats at various price points.
"I also have a ‘snackbar’ for singles, such as bully sticks, turkey and chicken necks, yak chews and more," she said.
Cano-Aguirre agreed that sales of treats and chews are up, and credits social media, veterinarian recommendations and a shift in the way we view our pets as big influences on buying choices.
"Since the ’90s, gen X, as well as generations that came after, are choosing to have smaller families and welcome dogs into their home," Cano-Aguirre said. "We want nutritious meals that will give our babies the best chance at thriving into old age."
Cano-Aguirre said chicken and beef are still best-sellers, "but single-ingredient and novel-protein freeze-dried treats demand is growing."
As demand for treats and chews with natural ingredients continues to grow, consumers have become receptive to recommendations, which is a great opportunity to educate them, according to industry insiders.
"People are asking for recommendations of things that are different from what their dogs have had before, to try something new or perhaps healthier than what they’ve experienced in the past," said Mark Vitt, co-owner of Mutts & Co., which has stores in Ohio.
Reibert has seen a steady interest in conventional treats and chews, but natural varieties are more in demand now, too.
"Outside of the growth with USA-made, organic and limited-ingredient treats, our largest growth has been with rawhide-alternative pet treats," Reibert said. "Rawhide alternative treats are more natural, easily digestible and longer-lasting.
"We continue to explore options with current and new brands, and work diligently to stay ahead of trends, giving our customers the newest and largest selection possible."
3 Tips for Merchandising Natural Dog Treats and Chews
Interest and demand in natural treats and chews is growing. Smart merchandising is needed to keep sales strong.
1. Custom-Made Displays
"We build our own stores, as well as custom-made units, that allow us to display products in an aesthetically pleasing manner, and with product easily accessible for our customers," said Jeff Reibert, pet category buyer for CountryMax, which has stores in New York state.
Denise Strong, owner of Pawz on Main, a retailer in Cottonwood, Ariz., also sees value in attractive displays.
"Pawz On Main is unique in the fact that we use no metal floor displays," she said. "All merchandise displays utilize unique wood and metal cabinetry, which creates a more ‘pleasing to the eye’ shopping experience."
2. Signage Points to Success
"We create store signage that coordinates with the various product categories, to provide product knowledge for our customers and highlight the benefits of the various product offerings," Reibert said.
Derek J. Archambault, director of marketing at FoodScience Corp. in Williston, Vt., agrees with this approach.
"It is also really great to have a personal touch to your merchandising efforts," he said. "If there are products that your staff have recently tried and really liked, let them create signage or displays that explain why they liked it and what makes it different."
3. Talk It Up
"Products won’t fly off the shelves if people don’t know what they are," said Tavor White, founder and CEO of Chews Happiness, a Boulder, Colo.,-based manufacturer. "[Natural treats and chews] require a little more talking about. It’s more work, but if pet retailers want to put that work in, I think they’ll really differentiate themselves."